What's Hot in London -- January 1998

Special Features   What's Hot in London -- January 1998
Playbill On-Line's London correspondent Sheridan Morley reviews major recent openings:

Playbill On-Line's London correspondent Sheridan Morley reviews major recent openings:

A DELICATE BALANCE: When Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance first opened here, in a somewhat austere staging with Peggy Ashcroft at the Aldwych all of 30 years ago, I took its cross-references to be towards Samuel Beckett: The nameless dread, which forces a married couple to billet themselves indefinitely on their best friends and, above all, the bleakness of the vision of Agnes their hostess ('Finally there's nothing there, save rust and bones and the wind'), certainly seemed to point in that direction. It wasn't until some time later I read a brilliant preface written by Albee to the plays of Noel Coward that I realized we might be a great deal closer to home.

What, for instance, is the game of Get the Guests in his Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? if not a variant on the agonies inflicted by Coward on his weekenders in Hay Fever? Moreover, when we come to A Delicate Balance, once again we are sharply reminded of Sir Noel: an elegant house in the country, unwelcome guests, an alcoholic sister, a recalcitrant daughter, an all-knowing mother and a father who has effectively retreated from even his own existence.

All are Cowardly stereotypes from the 1920's given sharp and sinister make-overs by Albee. It is the triumph of the new production at the Haymarket to have realized these connections still considerably ahead of most Albee scholars. Anthony Page, the director, and his brilliantly elegant designer Carl Toms, have come up with a hugely rich staging in which Eileen Atkins and John Standing hold the fort against their own self-destruction, while Maggie Smith (as the hard-drinking, concertina-playing sister), Sian Thomas

(as the four-time divorcee daughter) and James Laurenson and Annette Crosbie (as the petrified neighbors demanding refuge) fill out the best cast in London this season, maybe the best ever seen in any Albee over here.

On Broadway it was Elaine Stritch who walked away with this revival as the sister; but at the Haymarket Maggie Smith faces vastly tougher competition, and at the end of the evening, it is the world-weary, infinitely elegant, carefully wasted husband who in John Standing's mesmerizing performance best captures the spirit of familial and personal self-destruction that lies at the heart of this great play. A Delicate Balance can now be seen as the time-bombed bridge that gets us from Virginia Woolf? to Three Tall Women. Where once only marriages imploded in Albee, now it is entire families passing from generation unto generation the destructive art of the dinner party gone poisonous, the hostess off her trolley, the family that only stays together to slay together, even if the victims do turn out to be themselves. There are no nearest or dearest in Albee; and if we are to take home any single message, it is perhaps that there is a surprising amount to be said in favor of the orphanage when you consider most alternatives; the relative values have long since gone into deficit.

THE CHAIRS: At the Duke of York's, Simon McBurney directs Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwan in a surprisingly rare revival of Ionesco's The Chairs. This was the play that in 1958 confirmed the stardom of Joan Plowright in a Tony Richardson production with Eli Wallach as the Old Man. We now have a new translation by the admirable Martin Crimp, and it turns up in a Theatre de Complicite production by Simon McBurney, which is considerably more orthodox than one might have expected from that usually anarchic source.

In one respect, 40 years have not been kind to The Chairs; where once Ionesco seemed the supreme theatrical juggler, capable, as Tynan once wrote, "of phrases which kindle the heart, as if a match has been struck and we glimpse, for a second only, a human face both lonely and deeply appalled," he now seems tricky and empty, his territory overtaken and conquered by Beckett and his relevance at best historical. The long-awaited Orator, who turns out to be dumb, now seems little more than the punchline to a Monty Python sketch, and although Briers and McEwan try very naturally to put some (admittedly senile) life into their nonagenarians, the more they play for humor or sympathy, the more The Chairs seem to creak.

We are deliberately told little if anything about Ionesco's old couple; he has been some kind of janitor, and it is clear that she loves him very much, enough to leap to her death with him when they are both falsely confident that with the long-delayed arrival of the Orator, his message will be safely delivered to the world. Originally the macabre joke here seemed to be that he probably didn't have anything very crucial to tell the world anyway; but so realistic are Briers and McEwan amid the barking madness of the piece that we start to care about them as though they were the loving creations of a Chekhov or a David Storey instead of the symbols of futility that Ionesco clearly intended.

There is still something weird and wonderful about what goes on here, but it is now chiefly the interaction of Briers and McEwan, who seem to have been together for centuries instead of the few weeks of these rehearsals. At times a music-hall turn, the dear old couple who loathe one another, at others infinitely touching in their blind faith, they turn The Chairs into a domestic tragedy of senility instead of the Theatre of the Absurd masterpiece originally perceived, certainly in Europe if always more insecurely over here. Instead of the surreal, we now get the suburban; the channel crossing is still a treacherous one even for great dramatists.

-- By Sheridan Morley

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